Yusra Mardini, 19, a Syrian refugee, is a success story. But that's only because she was able to have a second chance in Germany after a fight for survival that inspired the world.
As a Syrian refugee, the young girl boarded one of the many boats smuggling migrants across the Mediterranean, only to save everyone on board as she helped tow it to shore once it began to sink.
The girl's skills were later put to good use, and in 2016, she competed as a member of the Refugee Olympic Athletes Team (ROT) at the Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Now, the girl wants gold. And she might well get it.
Living in Germany, or a “peaceful country,” as she puts it, is definitely very different than living in her native Syria. But watching the December terrorist attack on a Christmas market in Berlin served as a brutal reminder of where she was from. As the young athlete prepares for the Tokyo Olympics in 2020, she said she hopes to be more than just a poster girl for refugee resilience — she wants to win.
At 5-feet-5-inches tall, Mardini may not be one of the tallest swimmers — something her mentor and former head coach, Sven Spannekrebs, always brings up as a joke around the athlete. However, she has enough drive and motivation to go beyond what's expected.
“It's what swimming is all about,” she tells reporters. “You have to wait to achieve goals. It can take a year to swim one second faster. You wait five years to get in your top form.”
As a child in Daraya, a suburb of Damascus, Syria, the athlete dreamed of being a pilot. Living comfortably as the daughter of Ezzat, a swimming coach, and Mervat, a physiotherapist, Mardini visited the pool with her father every Saturday along with her older sister, Sarah, 21. Both women now swim competitively.
In 2011, when the protests against President Bashar al-Assad started, Mardini was in seventh grade. As the events progressed into a civil war, nearly 5 million people were forced to flee their country.
At first, Mardini said she didn't put too much thought into what was happening.
“I just kept swimming and going to school, trying to live like a normal kid,” she says.
But in 2012, things went out of hand. That's when Daraya was the epicenter of a major battle between rebel and Syrian forces. Her town was destroyed, and hundreds of locals were killed in the process.
As locals were forced to survive by eating soups made of leaves, everything changed.
“After that,” the girl now recounts, “it was all different.”
After having to move elsewhere in Damascus to stay alive, the girl had to stop training, missing a total of two years of practice. That put her at a disadvantage as she lost strength. In Germany, Spannekrebs says that the girl had to rebuild muscle and lost body fat “to make up for those lost years in speed.”
Afraid of seeing the family splitting up, Mardini's parents didn't want to think about leaving. But one day in summer of 2015, her mother came to her in tears saying that both she and Sarah could leave. She had arranged for two male relatives to accompany them to Turkey and then onward to Europe.
“It was the hardest thing for her to do,” the athlete says. “But she knew we had to go.”
From Damascus, the girls went to Turkey where they met with a smuggler and several other refugees. For four days, they waited in a forest near a beach without any food. To get to Mytilene, the capital of the Greek island of Lesbos, “[t]he moment had to be right; the waves had to be right; there had to be a time when there were no patrols,” she explained.
They left at dusk on the fourth day, but about 20 minutes into the trip, the motor stopped. As the raft started to sink, Sarah and Usra climbed out into the cold water and started pulling the boat with a rope toward the island.
“We used our legs and one arm each — we held the rope with the other and kicked and kicked. Waves kept coming and hitting me in the eye,” she tells reporters. “That was the hardest part — the stinging of the salt water. But what were we going to do? Let everyone drown? We were pulling and swimming for their lives.”
This lasted for three and a half hours.
“There was a boy, Mustafa. He was only about six. He was really funny, and when we were in the forest, we were playing with him and joking with him. I think when we were pulling the boat, we wanted to save everyone, but we were thinking the most about him.”
At the island, refugees weren't treated warmly, and at times, locals wouldn't even let them buy food. But as they made their way through Europe, the sisters finally made it to Germany, where they spent six months in a camp.
They heard about a swimming club from an interpreter and arranged to try out.
Now, the girls live with their mom and young sister in Berlin. Since Mardini's story was told, she has received a series of movie and book offers. And despite the concerns brought up by her mentor, she says she's never tired of living the life she now has.
“I'm happy to be alive,” she tells Spannekrebs.
Now, Mardini is a High Profile Supporter for UNHCR and is considering becoming a motivational speaker. She has already given speeches at the World Economic Forum in Davos, at a U.N. World Food Programme event, and at a panel about grief and resilience alongside Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg.
“That was the high point of Davos for me,” Mardini says of Sandberg's speech. “What a strong woman! Hearing her talk about moving on from grief. That’s what it’s about, isn’t it? Moving on?”
It sure is. And she has mastered it like no other out of her own willpower and determination.
Banner and thumbnail credit: Reuters, Fabrizio Bensch